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News Release

January 25, 2006

History of Drug Use in Canada Examined in New Book

Controlling illegal drug use through harsh restrictions and tough penalties was as much an issue 80 or 90 years ago as it is today, according to a new book by a University of Guelph history professor.

Written by Catherine Carstairs, Jailed for Possession: Illegal Drug Use, Regulation and Power in Canada, 1920 to 1961 looks at why Canada passed extremely harsh drug laws in the 1920s and what impact those laws had on the lives of users. "It also helps us to understand contemporary drug laws and public perception of drug users," she said, adding that class and race played a significant role in the experience of drug users during this period and that methods for controlling drug use were hotly debated topics.

Although opiates were once widely used in Canada through patent medicines, they were removed from the list of allowed ingredients by the turn of the twentieth century. By the early 1920s, the practice of using opiates for relaxation and pain relief was morally rejected by most white Canadians and drug use was labelled as a Chinese problem, she said.

People also blamed the Chinese for drug smuggling and trafficking, and worried that drugs were causing young women to prostitute themselves, spread venereal disease, and have sex with Asian men, she said. As a result, new laws were passed leading to six-month penalties for possession and deportation.

“This had dramatic effects on drug use and the lives of users,” said Carstairs noting that few doctors wanted users as patients and treatment was almost non-existent.

Diligent police work meant drugs became more expensive and harder to come by. By the 1930s, users spent more and more time travelling around the country in search of a “fix,” resorted to crime more frequently to finance their habit, and developed less detectable, but more dangerous ways to use drugs, including injecting opiates intravenously instead of smoking them, she said. They also became caught in a cycle of imprisonment.

“Although tough sentencing reduced the number of users, it had severely detrimental effects on the health, employment and relationships of those who continued to use.”

Police began to closely monitor doctors to ensure they weren’t prescribing opium to known users, said Carstairs, but doctors who were users themselves were treated far more leniently.

“There are numerous accounts of doctors who prescribed themselves opiates, yet never saw the inside of a jail cell. Their wealth and status allowed their use to go undetected, while at the same time it was very difficult to be a working class user and not come to the attention of the police within a very short time.”

Today, there are far more users and there are more drugs on the market, said Carstairs. International drug trade has also increased and policing it all is far more difficult. But this early period of enforcement shows that the negative outcomes outweigh the positive ones when it comes to harsh drug enforcement. Instead of imprisonment, there is a need for a broader array of treatments, including maintenance programs, she said.

Carstairs will give a talk on "From Opium Dens to Overdoses: The Impact of Harsh Drug Legislation on the Lives of Users" at the Feb. 7 meeting of the Guelph Historical Society. The meeting begins at 7:30 p.m. at St. Andrew's Church.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 53338, or Rebecca Kendall, Ext. 56982.

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